Driven by the development and rapid adoption of technology from younger buyers and the competitive B2B market, wholesale distributors – like other companies – have been rushing to online sales channels in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated many distributors’ commerce plans, as direct sale channels dried up almost immediately overnight due to pandemic-related restrictions.
Given the current digital reality of the market, distributors now regularly compete against hundreds of other global competitors with nearly identical, lackluster websites in addition to new global competitors traditionally focused on B2C with far superior websites. The question is now, how can lesser-known B2B companies differentiate and stand out from the competition across all touchpoints? How can distributors build trust in this new, ultra-competitive, digital-first environment?
One way to accomplish a differentiated online presence is to reflect on existing, proven concepts of the past.
Traditional Methods for Wholesale Distributors to Build Trust
For decades, distributors have worked diligently to build rapport with customers in face-to-face settings. For most distributors, sales representatives have played a critical role to build the level of trust required to support customer satisfaction and longevity.
Sales teams have acted as the unsung heroes of wholesale distribution, traveling to customer sites each week to help with difficult product-related questions, recommend substitutions in case the requested product is not available, and handle complaints with grace.
Acting as the face of the distributor, knowledgeable and responsible sales representatives work diligently to build trust and loyalty within their customer base. Even though these valued staff have lessened travel and likely moved to work-from-home situations, a high level of virtual interaction and advisory support is still welcomed by most customers.
Aside from face-to-face relationship building with sales staff, McKinsey found that distribution customers also value product range and availability as two of the most important aspects when selecting their supplier of choice.
No matter the scenario, trust is built across every facet of customer engagement, including the knowledgeable sales representative, product range, product availability, and commerce experience.
Building Trust into the B2B Commerce Experience
Trust is built on a series of consistent, positive experiences – online or offline. To support this critical business fundamental amidst a growing volume of e-commerce orders, leading distributors are adopting basic, proven industry concepts into their webshop presence to turn e-commerce into a competitive advantage.
Simply having a functioning website to field customer inquiries and orders is no longer enough to build and maintain customer trust. To evolve the concept of trust within the context of a B2B webshop, one must put themselves in the customer’s shoes. In the most basic sense and across all channels, customers are looking to address the following questions:
- Can you understand what I’m asking?
- Are you showing me the search results that I expect to see?
To get started, we recommend focusing on providing customers with relevant product search and recommendation capabilities.
Related to product search, customers want to search for products using terminology, language, and product names that they know. Similar to how a sales representative would be expected to know what the customer is looking for, customers expect the same from a webshop. If there is no result or the result provided is off-base, that is a direct hit to the customer’s trust. Alternatively, if a distributor can serve up good, relevant search results, customers are more likely to return. In the past, the process to map zero search result queries to appropriate matches was manual, but today this is done by artificial intelligence where the software can actually extract the meaning of product data from information such as product attributes and type.
The second way a distributor can influence trust using a webshop is through offering relevant product recommendations. Customers continue to be grateful for product or service recommendations that complement their immediate needs. This can be displayed on the product detail page as suggestions of alternative products in case the original product is out of stock, or recommendations for a complementing product. This is similar to the value a sales representative would offer but in a digital environment. In the past, this was done via hard-coded product relationships that were difficult to scale and could not “flex” to match specific application requirements (e.g. compatible materials, operating environments, performance requirements). Today, intuition and anecdotes are no longer enough to win today’s buyer. Leading distributors leverage modern product recommendation engines that utilize machine learning to distill appropriate recommendations from the total of buying behavior for massive amounts of data.
Building Trust with B2B Customers, Digitally
In summary, building customer trust online is not dissimilar from what distributors have done to enable traditional salesforces.
Are your sales representatives knowledgeable? Are they able to help customers find what they need and offer relevant product recommendations? Your digital channels should be able to do the same.
By giving the digital sales channel the same importance as the traditional sales channels, distributors can build reliability and relevance into their webshop strategy to retain and even grow customer trust.
Susanne Adam is a Principal Solution Manager for Wholesale Distribution with SAP. During the past years, she worked with customers on various topics concerning their customer engagement strategy. Before this role, she was a Principal Consultant, involved in various projects in the Wholesale and Retail Industry. She holds a master of arts degree in Information Science from the Saarland University. She can be contacted at Susanne.Adam@sap.com.
Jason Hein is principal visionary for B2B at Bloomreach. He has spent over 20 years working in product merchandising and digital strategy for industrial distributors in both broad line and specialty categories. With experience at both established leaders (McMaster-Carr) and industry disruptors (Amazon Business), he spent six years as a speaker for B2B associations and a digital strategy consultant for B2B e-commerce leaders before joining Bloomreach. He earned an MBA from Northwestern University. He can be reached at Jason.firstname.lastname@example.org.